In their efforts to change the public education system, today’s school reformers pay close attention to things such as standardized test scores, graduation and attendance rates, curriculum standards and per-student cost. One thing they don’t talk much about — but that is a fundamental part of any effort to really help students learn — are the conditions in which young people live and spend most of their time. In other words, they don’t talk much — if at all — about student poverty rates.
For years, many reformers adopted a “no excuses” motto, meaning that nothing, including living in abject poverty, was an excuse for poor student performance in school if teachers did their jobs effectively. The notion that hunger or chronic illness or trauma could make it impossible for teachers to help students move the performance needle was rejected, and those who raised the issue were labeled as people who simply wanted to defend the “status quo.” (How it became acceptable to ignore the obvious — that needy kids need support services to do better in school — is a story for another time.)
Interestingly, a judge in California is considering an unprecedented class-action lawsuit arguing that the Compton Unified School District has failed to directly address the trauma that many students experience outside of class and that there should be accommodations made in school for this reason because it affects academic performance.
My colleague Emma Brown has this summer written about student poverty rates, first in this July story, with a series of maps showing poverty rates in school districts, and then in this recent story, with a map showing how student poverty has increased since the Great Recession of 2008.
Here is one map with student poverty rates in the nearly 14,000 public school districts around the country in 2013, the latest year for which there is complete information. It was created by the nonprofit EdBuild, which used Census Bureau poverty rates and then constructed an interactive map which you can find here and see how poverty rates changed from 2006 to 2013. According to EdBuild, there was over that period a 260 percent increase in the number of students who went to school in districts with poverty rates of 40 percent or more. (That isn’t a typo. It’s a 260 percent increase.)
Meanwhile, school reform is still heavily focused not on getting kids wrap-up around services that they need to help them concentrate in school and have more stable, healthy lives at home, but on standardized test scores, which are used not only to evaluate students but their schools and their teachers too.
This EdBuild map shows K-12 student poverty rates in 2013.
In 2013, there were 26.3 million students living in high-poverty school districts (those with child poverty rates of 20 percent or higher) throughout the United States. This represents an increase of 60 percent — 9.7 million children — since 2006. Even more alarming, there has been a 260 percent increase in the number of students in concentrated-poverty school districts (whose poverty levels are 40 percent or above). These concentrated-poverty areas pose heightened risks to child well-being and opportunity.
Why does it matter? From EdBuild:
While individual poverty matters a great deal on its own, community context is important as well. Students in high-poverty areas (20%+) are especially disadvantaged, even more so than low-income children who live in more affluent areas. They are less likely to have qualified or experienced teachers. They need additional in-school supports, like nutrition assistance and heightened guidance counseling.
Students in concentrated poverty are generally consigned to even more significant opportunity challenges. They are more likely to be exposed to violence in the home or their community.
Our schools should be well equipped to address these additional needs in order to expand opportunities for children. In the case of children living in high or concentrated poverty, that means schools need more resources to level the playing field. Unfortunately, most students in high-poverty districts actually receive less funding. Nationally, schools in high poverty areas receive, on average, $5,500, or 29%, less per student than all other districts in the US.